11 best London guide books

From bustling bars in Brixton to sight-seeing on South Bank, make the most of your trip to the UK capital

Emma Henderson@Emmalouisehendy
Friday 10 March 2017 11:51

London is huge. Covering more than 600 square miles, it’s colloquially defined as being inside the M25 motorway. But looking a little closer, it’s made up of 32 boroughs – a word most outside of Britain struggle with, when it comes to both pronouncing and understanding as a concept that differs to neighbourhoods – but each has its own identity, from the hipster East in Hackney, to the touristy West End in the City of Westminster.

London is home to a fascinatingly diverse population of around eight million people, and has something for everyone – whether it’s losing yourself in its world-class galleries, luxuriating in your favourite hotel for high tea, or roaming its many beautiful Victorian parks. Whatever you’re after, London undoubtedly has it, and we’ve selected our favourite guidebooks to help you find it.

1. Insight Guides: Experience London: £9.99, APA Publications

This book from Insight Guides offers people what they really want: experiences, and over 100 of them at that. At the front of the guide, there are 12 pages offering quick ideas for what you might be in the mood for, from something romantic to a night on the town – perfect for when you need a quick decision. The rest of the book is laid out in coloured-coded neighbourhoods and lists experiences with a detailed map in each section, including breakfast at The Wolseley in Mayfair to finding upcoming art at the Whitechapel gallery in the east. You also get a London destination app called Walking Eye, which is essentially the book on your phone.

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2. London: Monocle Travel Guides: £12.99, Die Gestalten Verlag

You may be forgiven for thinking this hardback edition with a striking front cover looks like a coffee table book, but it’s pretty much the Bible of “hidden gem” guidebooks. Aimed at travellers who are spending a few days in the city – either for work or pleasure – it offers up specific itineraries and cool ideas, from the best areas for independent shops to where to take clients for superb cocktails. And there’s one thing the book specifically leaves out – sorry Madame Tussauds, you won’t be mentioned in here. It has a code system of letters to identify each type of sightseeing such as C for culture and W for walks, a monochrome map at the front and loads of colour photography throughout. Also included is a section of 12 essays, written by the author and Monocle staff on urban exploration.

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3. Wallpaper* City Guide London: £6.95, Phaidon

Design magazine Wallpaper* has a reputation for being edgy, but this pocket-sized guide, at just 101 pages, doesn’t sacrifice substance for style. Aimed at the design-conscious traveller, it has sections on urban life and “architours”, where you go on the hunt for great buildings, including the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre on Sheffield Street to the National Theatre on the South Bank. Aside from London’s core attractions, it gives you an insider’s knowledge to the city. It suggests the coolest restaurants with fabulous interiors, new design-led hotels, lively nightlife spots and influential galleries – all with colour photography. There’s a section to write notes towards the back, and a fold-out map. And best of all, it has a little price tag to match its size.

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4. Not For Tourists Guide to London 2017: £12.99, Not For Tourists

Screaming out to those who prefer to refer to themselves as “travellers” rather than the much-maligned “tourist”, the 2017 edition of this chunky book is crammed full of tips on where to eat, drink, dance and more, describing its selection as the “most delicious, intoxicating, awe-inspiring, groovy destinations” in the city (which may be a little over the top). Split into neighbourhoods which are more like areas, from Covent Garden to Hampstead Village, it gives details on what to do in each of the 60 or so areas in the form of an alphabetical list of attractions and amenities, all on one condensed page, with a full-page, detailed road map – it makes for a great directory. But what it lacks is actual photography.

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5. Lonely Planet London: £14.99, Lonely Planet

One of the best go-to travel publishers is Lonely Planet. Husband and wife Tony and Maureen wrote their first guide 40 years ago, back when the world wasn’t quite as accessible as today. But still, the name stands, as does its reliable reputation. The London city guide is the most comprehensive guide in its range and is rather chunky, owing to its detail and breadth of coverage. Its oft-copied, simplistic layout means it’s easy to dive in and find what you want and how to get thee. But what makes these guides so useful is its way of splitting up areas, and numbering sights on the maps of each section. Although you won’t find much off the beaten track in the top 16 attractions, its detail goes as far as offering notes on key transport phrases so you won’t get your contactless and Oyster cards mixed up, while the best sections include suggested places to visit based on your interests, doing it like a local and doing things for free.

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6. Secret London – An Unusual Guide by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash: £12.99, Jonglez

An unusual guide is exactly how this should be described. It’s most suited for second or third time travellers, unless you're not too bothered about ticking off Buckingham Palace et al the first time round, as this one avoids all the clichés. It shows you the often forgotten or dismissed parts of London, like the quirky architecture of Rudolf Steiner’s house, or the tropical garden of the Barbican conservatory, hidden within London’s brutalist landmark. It’s laid out in a very simple way: a full picture on the left with text on the right. The compact guide only has one map at the front, and only six areas which are grouped together, covering rather large areas starting with Westminster to Camden and finishing with South Bank to Brixton. It’s a great open-and-point option for exploring.

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7. CITIx60: London: £9.99, Victionary

With the most gorgeous covers and tonal, hand-drawn, cartoonish maps to draw you in, you really can judge this book by its cover. It’s short, concise and big on beautiful pictures. The guide was put together by 60 local creatives, including illustrator Marta Długołęcka and architect Richard Scott. Each take a page to show and tell you the best parts of their city, and with a picture of their face and short quote, you almost feel like it’s a friend giving you suggestions. It could be used whether you’re visiting for a day, week, month or a year, as it’s easy to dip in and refer to. In its 12 sections, architecture and mementos (a more appealing word for “souvenirs”) feature prominently and are followed by street markets, locally crafted beer and even tattoos, with quaint cartoons depicting each section. But don’t rely on it for accommodation as there are only two pages of high-end hotels.

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8. Frommer’s London Day by Day: £9.99, FrommerMedia

This day-by-day guide covers the best things to see and do, and how to do them in the most time-efficient way. Each of the tours – ranging from a full, all-encompassing day to a literary interest tour – uses a map that takes you from stop to stop. It begins with 16 of the best suggestions, which include the heading to the top of The Shard, afternoon tea at The Goring hotel and Shakespeare's Globe. The front map breaks down the neighbourhoods, postcodes and boundaries and boroughs, making it easy for people to grasp London’s geography. At the back, there is a tear-proof map, which is great for kids.

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9. LOST iN London: A City Guide: £9.77, Lost in the City

LOST iN guides started just over two years ago and are all about “getting lost” in the sights, sounds and smells of a city. They’re written by locals, and all the better for it, described as being for people with open minds and creative souls. Revealing the uniqueness of each city, creative locals are asked for recommendations on everything from music and fashion to art and architecture. Looks-wise, it comes across as a mix between a guidebook and an Instagram account, with lots cool photos – some taking up the whole page. And accompanying the print edition is a mobile app, which allows you to plan your trip on the go.

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10. 36 Hours: London and Beyond, by the New York Times: £7.99, Taschen

Ok, so it’s actually London “and beyond”, with sections on nearby locations such as Brighton and Cambridge, as well as the far-flung Isle of Skye, but as part of its 36 Hours series, which mainly features continents, the New York Times deemed London to be important enough for its second city-only guide. With a cloth-bound, racer-green cover, it’s certainly worth keeping to adorn your coffee table afterwards. The book is split into sections by area, with delightful added extras including “literary London” and “London with children 2, and gives excellent suggestions on where to eat cake or see an exhibition – two of London’s essential activities – with full-page coloured photography. But maps are small, so you might need to take another with you.

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11. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide London: £14.99, Dorling Kindersley

With 440 pages, the Eyewitness guide is an extremely detailed edition aimed at first-timers – or for families with young children who might ask “what, where and why” about everything. And with this book, you’ll actually have all the answers, with 140 illustrations and cutaways revealing what’s inside the major attractions. The main bulk is dedicated to colour-coded areas – mostly north of the river – but most of the other sights are in the “further afield” section, from Kew Gardens to Queen Elizabeth Park. The guided walks give street-by-street directions and times. The food and drink section is small and sticks to the classics, with no mention of pop-ups and street food markets. There’s a pull-out map at the back, 22 pages of other detailed maps, and a trusty tube map, all of which will help you navigate with ease.

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The Verdict: London guide books

The Insight Guide’s “new experience” format is great for people who want the best, well, experience, where you can almost tick off the list as you go, and are great for people who live in the city too. Lonely Planet never fails, and the London guide is no different, but for something different for creatives seeking a local’s view of a city that’s full of design and architecture, the Wallpaper* or Citix60 are both insightful.

All prices listed are RRP

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